Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Somebody's Louise

            “I’m sorry, miss, but that’s not enough.  That’ll only get you to Omaha.”
            “But… but it’s all I have.”
            “Well, you can buy a ticket to Omaha and walk the rest of the way or you can come back some other time when you’ve got the money to get to Lincoln,” the ticket agent shrugged.  Raising his eyebrows he asked, “So, which is it?”
            She just stared at him blankly, with no idea what to say.
            “She’s a real beauty, Sir.”
            “That she is, and as high strung as they come.”  The tall, sandy-haired man smiled easily as he gently stroked the graceful, fine-boned horse’s head. She started to snort anxiously as the stable boy stepped closer.   He held out a restraining hand.  “Careful there!”
            The boy quickly stepped back. “Sorry, Sir.”
            He watched the older man continue to quiet the horse, then take the leading lines and begin to guide her toward the boxcars of the train.  The horse kept snuffling and shaking her head in nervousness.
            Following as closely as he dared, the young boy asked in a quietened tone, “What kinda horse is she?  I ain’t never seen one what looked like her before.  And I seen all kinds a horses come through here.”
            “She’s an Arabian, son, all the way from the Ottoman Empire.”
            “Wow!” marveled the boy, impressed.  “How’d she get all the way out here ta Missourah?”
            “I ain’t rightly sure,” the man with the sparkling blue eyes answered. “I--”
            His answer was cut off when a porter ran past them, pushing a noisy cart piled high with luggage.  One trunk slipped off the cart, landing with a noisy thud on the boardwalk edging up to the train tracks.
            The flurry of motion and noise spooked the excitable horse, who reared, whinnying her distress in a trumpeting bugle call that could easily be heard over the sound of the train’s chugging engine.  Twisting about, she jerked the reins out of the man’s strong grasp and took off down the boardwalk, seeking escape.
            She was so lost in her own misery she missed the clattering of hooves coming up behind her.  But the voice chasing after the runaway animal roused her.
            “Help!  Someone stop that horse! “
            She looked up just in time to see the whites of the horse’s eyes as it rounded the corner and nearly smacked into her.
            Without thinking, she dropped her bag and instinctively reached out to grab onto the trailing leadlines.
            Rather than try to force the horse to a stop, she began to run with it, using the lines to simply guide the horse to a quiet corner in an alley behind the bakery across the street from the train station.
            There, she stood still, breathing heavily from the unexpected run.  The horse stood facing her, tossing its head in continued agitation, its sides heaving, too.
            “Shhhh,” she finally said in a quiet, soothing voice.  “It’s alright. No one’s going to hurt you my beauty.  You’re safe here.”
            Once she was sure she had captured the animal’s attention, she deliberately turned her back on it.  The horse’s high forehead and widely spaced eyes indicated it was an intelligent creature and she trusted the mare’s curiosity to get the better of her.  So she waited patiently, continuing to talk in the same soft, dulcet tones.
            Her efforts were quickly rewarded as the animal pranced daintily up behind her and nosed her neck and head curiously.  She laughed quietly when the mare’s slightly whiskery muzzle tickled her and turned to face the beautiful horse.
            “You’re a beauty, for sure and for certain,” she whispered, leaning into the creature as it leaned into her, each finding a measure of comfort in the other’s presence.
            “Oh, thank God!” came the relieved cry in a breathy baritone.  “I was afraid she might’ve run off with ya.  Or hurt ya while getting away.”
            “No,” the young woman said, turning her head to look toward the newcomer, but not moving from her embrace of the horse.  “She just needed some space from all that noise and confusion.”
            The man ‘hmphed’ in frustration as he pulled his hat off his head and slapped it against his thigh. “Well, she’s going to have to get used to it.  I can’t ride her all the way to Nebraska.  Ain’t got that much time.”
            “She’ll be alright,” the slender girl-woman smiled.  Finally she stepped back, but kept a tight hold on the leadlines.  “She just needed a little reassurance, first.  That’s all.”
            She stepped confidently toward the alley entrance and the busy street and the horse moved eagerly after her, keeping within a hairsbreadth of her new handler.  “See, she’s eager to get on with the trip.”
            The man shook his head in consternation as he watched the duo disappear around the corner.
            “It’s alright,” she said softly, poking her fingers through a crack in the wooden slats of the side of the boxcar.  “I’m right here.”
            The horse snuffled at her fingers for a moment.  Then, contented that all was well, turned to the bucket of oats the man had measured out for her.
            “I’ll be hornswaggled,” he muttered.  “I only seen one or two people with yer way with horses my whole life.  Where’d ya learn how ta handle ‘em here in the city?”
            He tossed his head to indicate the busy streets surrounding them.
            “I grew up on a farm,” she said simply.  “I always loved animals and was always helping out in the stables.  I was an only child and my…. Pa… taught me everything he knew about animals.”
            “Well, ya sure learned right an’ proper,” he allowed.
            “Hey, Miss, ya fergot yer bag!”
            She turned to see the excited young stableboy trotting up to her, lugging the small carpet bag stuffed with everything she owned in the world.
            “Thank you,” she smiled at the youngster.  “Thank you so much!  I don’t know what I would have done without this.”
            He blushed and ducked his head shyly.  “Awww, tweren’t nothin’, Miss.”
            “Hey, boy!  Get over here and do yer job,” a large man with dark hair and buck teeth yelled toward them.  “I ain’t payin’ ya ta moon over some birdie.”
            She watched him run back to his boss, father, whatever the big man was, her fists clenching around the handles of her carpetbag until the knuckles turned white.  Its return had reminded her of her dilemma. 
            “Where are ya headed, anyways, Miss?”
            “What?” She turned startled eyes toward the tall man she’d forgotten was at her side.
            He nodded at the bag in her hands.  “Ya were outside the train station, possessions in hand.  Seems ta indicate yer goin’ somewhere.  Where might that be?”
            “I… I don’t know.”
            He cocked his head in question.
            “I… I was going to Lincoln.  I’ve got relatives nearby, or so I’m told.  But apparently I don’t have enough money to get there.  And I don’t have any idea of what to do to get the money.”
            “Can’t you go back to the farm?” he asked.  “Surely your parents will help.”
            “Uh… no.”  She turned her head away, blinking furiously to keep the sudden tears from falling.
            He waited a moment for her to explain.  When she didn’t, he sighed and continued.
            “I have a proposition for you--”
            “Just who do you think I am, mister?!” she rounded on him in sudden fury.
            He held up a placating hand.
            “Not that sort of proposition,” he laughed.  His smile crinkled the corners of his mouth and reached all the way up to his eyes.  “An honest one.  Since we were both wantin’ ta go the same way an’ ya seem ta be the only one that can get the Queen of the East here ta do anythin’ without a fight… I thought I could pay the rest of yer ticket and ya could travel with us.  All honest and above board, I promise.  My wife’d have my head if it were anythin’ else. “
            It was his laugh that swayed her.  There was something straightforward and true about it that convinced her he meant what he said.  Well, that and the way he’d said the word wife, full of equal parts love, respect and fear.
            She followed him onto the train and toward an empty bench at the back of the car.  As he took her carpetbag from her and lifted it onto the rack overhead, she reached up to unfasten the ties of her bonnet.  She removed the annoying headgear as she slid onto the bench, all the way over to the window to make room for the gentleman.
            “What the hell happened to your hair?!”
            She reached up and ran an embarrassed hand over the unruly, chopped off curls of barely an inch that rioted in an undisciplined mess all over her head.
            “Uh… it’s part of why I can’t go back,” she finally explained without explaining.
            Settling onto the bench next to her, he raised an eyebrow demanding more details.
            She sighed and continued haltingly.  “I left the farm last year.  I… became a novitiate at an orphanage run by nuns.  Against my family’s wishes.  There was no going back.”
            “But, you said you were visiting family near Lincoln,” he said, slightly confused.
            The train’s whistle, and the increasing chugging of the engine and squealing of the wheels as it began to build up steam for departure made it impossible to hear anything said for a moment and she just nodded.
            He waited impatiently for the train to get underway, so they could talk without shouting again.  Finally,  “Well?  If you’ve got family, how come you had to stay?”
            She shrugged.  “I didn’t know about them, yet.”
            He could tell she didn’t want to say anymore and decided not to press her, yet.
            “I know it’s… unusual,” he said instead, nodding toward her curly mop.  “But I think it’s real pretty.  Reminds me of my wife, when I first met her.  If ya didn’t know better, ye’d have thought she was a boy.  But ain’t no woman more a woman than she is.”
            The girl-woman on the seat next to him turned pleading eyes his way, begging without the words for more details.  He laughed, pleased to talk about his favorite subject.
            “We were just kids then, of course,” he added.  “Maybe a big younger than you, even.  But she sure shocked the stuffing outa me, I must say.  Once I knew, though, I couldn’t never see nothin’ but the beauty she was tryin’ ta hide from the world.
            “She was real good at it, too.  Why, this one time, a friend and I, we got in this fight at a saloon in Denver.  We did that a lot.  Well, she come in, took one look, and grabbed the nearest chair to smash over both our heads.  Didn’t have no patience fer our shenanigans.  But that started the whole place ta fightin’.”  He laughed at the memory.  “That chair she grabbed?  This gent was seconds away from sittin’ in it.  Instead, he set down hard on the sawdust floor, not ta mention all the stuff the sawdust was down there ta hide!  Needless ta say, he weren’t right pleased.  She walked out of there with a black eye.  He had two … and a limp!
            “She…. she went into a saloon?!  And got into a fight?” she asked in amazed wonder. 
            “Oh yeah,” he nodded, smiling.  “Like I said, she was just one of the boys.  Leastwise ta the rest of ‘em.  Most of the time, anyways.  This one time--” he started to relate another story as she eagerly ate up every word.
            The stories continued, one after the other, as the miles passed by outside the window, nearly unnoticed. 
            In Omaha, they got off the train to stretch their legs and get a bite to eat.  He kept right on telling stories, even as the lady at the restaurant set the food in front of them and he dug in.
            “I kin still remember her face the first time she ate his porridge.  Looked like she’d swallowed an entire lemon, whole.  Now, it weren’t the best thing in the world, but it sure was better then them biscuits had been the last trip,”  he laughed, as he shoveled a bite of steak and potatoes into his mouth.  “Wasn’t ‘til shortly ‘fore we got engaged, she finally ‘fessed up that she could cook.  And boy, can she cook.”  He paused and looked at the food in front of them.  “This is good, but it don’t hold a candle ta hers.”
            Some were happy, others sad.  But all carried the same thread of love running through them.  As the daylight faded to darkness, the stories continued.
            “Anyway, she’s been real down, missin’ him since then,” he said tenderly.  “So,” he straightened with a sigh and a slight smile, “when I saw that mare on the auction block in St. Louey, I knew I just had ta get her.  It’s just the thing ta perk her up.  If I kin only get her there in one piece.”
            “Is she really as good with horses as you say?” she asked.
            He nodded.  “Better, really.  The only one was better ‘n’ her was one of the boys we rode with, ‘fore he passed.”  He turned to face her and the soft smile spread, reaching up to his clear blue eyes.  “You’ve got her talent, ya know?  A  little work and ya could be a right fine trainer.”
            “Next stop, Lincoln, Nebraska.  Lincoln, Nebraska, is the next stop, ladies and gentleman.”
            She straightened in her seat as the conductor walked past, shouting out his warning to the passengers.  Excitement lit her eyes, with a small flame of trepidation at its depths.
            He stood up and began to pull their bags off the rack above them.
            She could see his own eagerness to be home and back with his beautiful wife soon.  “What’s her name?  You never said.”
            “Louise,” he said, his mouth caressing each letter of the name. 
            “That’s a nice name,” she smiled.
            “You never rightly said who yer family is hereabouts,” he commented, as he handed her carpetbag over.  “Or how come ya didn’t know ‘bout them.”
            She tucked the bag up against her chest and wrapped both arms around it possessively.  Then she turned and stared out the window to watch as the train passed through the edges of town.
            He’d almost given up on getting an answer when, just as the train started pulling into the station, she said, “I said I grew up on a farm.  It was a typical childhood, until I wanted to get married.  My parents warned me off him, I don’t know how many times.  Until finally, we came home and said, ‘We’re engaged.’  Then….” she paused to swallow the knot that suddenly filled her throat, “they sat us down and explained why.  I… I am… was… adopted.  So’s he.  And there’s a better than even chance he’s my brother.  Half at least.  He took off and I never saw him again.  Guess he didn’t love me all that much after all.”
            She waited for his explosion of disgust and/or pity.  When nothing came, she finally gathered her courage to look his way and found only empathy shining in his bright blue eyes.  It helped her finish her story.  “The nuns… at the orphanage… that’s where I was adopted from.  I went there to find out more about my past.  They said they didn’t know anymore than what they’d told my…. parents, I guess.”
            “They raised you and loved you like their own,” he said softly, resting a hand gently on her shoulder.  “That makes them your parents in all the ways that matter.”
            She nodded as soft tears tracked down her cheeks.
            “Anyway, I stuck around, hoping to find out more.  Last week, one day, they had me cleaning in the office.  I knocked over some boxes with files.  And there was one with my name on it.  I couldn’t help myself.  I read it.”
            She turned tear blurred eyes his direction as the train chugged to a stop.
            “My… my ma gave me up ‘cause… ‘cause she’d been vi… vi… violated.  Said I’d be better off never knowin’ her.”  She suddenly reached up and violently rubbed the tears leaking from her eyes out of existence as if denying the pain behind them.  “According to the record, she’d come in with another woman, a former prostitute.  They left both of us at the same time.  The other baby, that had been my fiancĂ©. 
“And… there was one last surprise.  She’d tried to come get me a few years later.  Said her life was different, settled.  She was married.  Had a husband who knew everything and wanted me.  But the nuns told her I’d already been adopted and wouldn’t tell her where I was.  Well, once I knew… I had ta find her.  Find out who she was, what she was like.  Do you have any idea what it’s like growing up not knowing who you really are?!”
            The train jerked to a stop as if in punctuation of her plea.  At the sound of the train’s whistle she stood up, pushing past him into the aisle.  Looking down she added, “The only thing she ever gave me was my name.  I’ve sat here listening to you talk about the woman you love more than life itself and there’s nothing I’d like more than to be somebody’s Louise.  To be loved half so much as you love her.”
            “Who..,” he paused to clear his suddenly thick throat and changed his mind about what he wanted to say.  “You never said who your family was around here.  Maybe… maybe I can help you find them.”  He looked up and met her gaze square on.  “What’s your name, young lady?”

            “Charlotte.  Charlotte McCloud.”

Author's Note: This story was inspired by Reba McEntire's song, Somebody's Chelsea.  Although, as often happens, the characters tore the story out of my hands and went a few totally unexpected directions.  This was supposed to be a purely anonymous meeting, after Lou's died.  Instead, she's still alive, Lou and Kid aren't that old... and then Charlotte went and told me who she was!  My beta readers have asked me if there's a sequel planned.  At this time, no.  This was conceived as a one shot.  But, if Charlotte, Lou and Kid gang up on me, who knows what will happen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Whole Truth: What's Hidden

Author's Note: This is the third installment in a series of shorts called The Whole Truth, based on the idea of what would have happened if Lou had told Kid about her rape after their first night together.
The pounding of the horses hooves, the familiar rhythmic sway of her mount beneath her was soothing, almost lulling her into a half asleep state after the last few days.  So much had changed so fast, Lou wasn’t sure if she could handle it.  Not that the changes were bad, necessarily.  But any change was dangerous.   She’d just started figuring out how to handle her life as it was, how to add Kid to it.  Now, this.  Marriage.  Was she ready for it? 
The unfamiliar weight of the band of gold he’d bought her that morning echoed the thumping of her horse’s hooves as it bounced against her chest hanging from a chain around her neck, keeping time to the animal’s movements against her chest.
Without thinking about it, she found herself reaching for the slender band with one hand, patting it through her shirt, whether to reassure herself it had all happened or to hold it in place, not even she was sure.
After that impromptu wedding ceremony in the meadow, the traveling preacher had insisted on accompanying them back to town, where he’d filled out and signed a marriage certificate, duly witnessed by the boardinghouse mistress and one of her boarders. 
She’d barely seen the marriage certificate after putting her own signature on it.  The preacher had handed it to Kid who’d quickly slipped it into the inside pocket of his coat, where it rested even now.  But she knew what it said and what it meant, and that was plenty.
The marriage was as legal and binding as anything she’d done in her life.  More, really.  And that scared her.  Because she knew what the law would let him get away with.  Not that she really thought Kid would be like him, her father, but still.  She couldn’t help shivering at the thought that now he could and there wasn’t anything, legally, she could do about it.  The hand that had been touching her ring slipped down her side to rest almost lovingly on the butt of her weapon, worn crosswise for a quicker draw.  The feel of it calmed her nerves.
She’d begin this marriage as she meant to go on, letting go of none of her independence.  She wanted Kid in her life, but she wouldn’t let him take over her life, not for nothing.  She refused to end up like her mother, running for her life and the lives of her children, always hiding in fear.  She’d already had to put her foot down once and she and Kid hadn’t even been married 24 hours.
Walking out of the boarding house, Kid paused to pull Lou close to his side and press a quick, elated kiss to her lips.  She’d laughed at the expression of pure happiness on his face, trying to fight off the fear boiling in her own gut.
Suddenly he’d grabbed her hand and begun pulling her down the boardwalk.
“Come on,” he’d practically shouted to her exuberantly.
“Where are we goin’?” she’d asked, breathlessly, as she tried to keep up with his long legged pace.
He skidded to a stop in front of one of the store windows and, with a grin, pointed at it. “Here.”
Goldberg’s Jewelry and Fineries
“Kid?” Lou turned a puzzled glance to her newly minted husband, looking for the answer she couldn’t find in the store’s name.  He pointed again, this time to a tray of rings laid out on one side of the window display.  Wedding rings.  Her tone changed, but still the question was there, “Kid?”
He’d just grinned and pulled her on inside.  The next twenty minutes or so had passed in a blur as he’d gone over the available rings, making her try them all on until he found exactly the one he wanted, the one he said fit her like it was made for her.
“But, Kid, it’s too much.  You… we… can’t afford that,” she’d tried protesting.
“I been savin’ up,” he‘d shrugged bashfully, blushing.  The rest was half mumbled, barely audible as he turned his head slightly away.  “Knew this moment would come sooner or later.”
The man behind the counter had barked with laughter as he’d moved toward the register to ring up the cost.
“Wait!” Lou had called after him.
“Yes, ma’am?” he’d asked, smiling.
“What about you?” she’d asked Kid.  “If you get to mark me as yers ta the world, don’t I get ta do the same?”
“I, uh, guess I never thought much ‘bout it,” he’d shrugged.
“We have some beautiful men’s wedding bands, too, sir,” the jeweler had quickly offered, pulling out another tray from under the counter. 
Lou had glanced through them quickly, before finding a simple gold band, similar to the one Kid had picked out for her, and pulled it out of the tray.  Turning to Kid, she’d grabbed his hand and started to slip it onto his finger.
Except it got stuck at the second knuckle.  She struggled for a moment, then her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“I don’t get it,” she muttered, frustrated.  “It looks like a perfect fit.”
“Most rings that fit right get stuck on the knuckle, ma’am,” the jeweler said helpfully.  Nodding to Kid, he added, “You’ll probably be able to twist it on right easy.”
Kid fiddled with the unfamiliar jewelry for a moment and it slipped right into place.  He grinned and reached out with his now beringed hand to grab hers, the two golden bands gleaming in the sunlight that streamed through the shop’s window.
“We’ll take them both,” Kid said, never pulling his eyes from Lou’s now blushing face.
“If that’ll be all,” the jeweler said, moving once again toward the register.
“We’ll need two chains, to hang the rings on, too,” Lou blurted out, not meeting Kid’s gaze.  “We, uh, don’t want to risk these doin’, uh, farmwork,” she added by way of explanation.
“Of course, ma’am.”
Only after they had paid and stepped out of the store, back onto the boardwalk did Kid ask the question.
“What was that all about?”
Lou sighed.  “You know I can’t go wearing this ‘round the others, Kid.  How would I ever keep up my disguise.”
“I guess I just figured you’d leave the ring with me when ya went on rides elsewhere,” Kid said.
“Kid, ain’t no way we can even tell the boys ‘bout this, lessen yer tryin’ ta get me fired,” Lou said, forcing sternness into her voice.
“Aw, Teaspoon won’t fire ya.  He didn’t fire ya fer bein’ a girl, despite all yer worries, now did he?”
“That’s different from bein’ married, Kid.  Even Teaspoon’d have trouble keepin’ me on as a rider knowin’ I was married, that we’d been doin’… well…. what we’ve been…. doin’.  That… that there could be a …. you know,” she finished off, practically hissing the last two words at him.  “And I don’t figure on this changin’ my life.  I love ya, Kid, with all my heart.  That’s why I agreed ta the weddin’.  But I can’t just stop bein’ me ‘cause I let ya put a ring on my finger.”
“When did I ask ya to stop bein’ yerself,” Kid asked, hurt.  “I… I just want the world ta know how I feel ‘bout ya.”
“I know, Kid,” she whispered, her stance softening as she reached up to caress his cheek.  “And it will.  But… not now, alright?  Not ‘til I… ‘til we’ve got ‘nough saved fer our own place and ta bring Teresa and Jeremiah home.  ‘Til then, the rings are gonna have ta stay on these chains.  Tell me ya understand.”
Kid nodded mutely, but she could see the hurt still in his eyes.  To block it out, she leaned up on tiptoe to press her lips to his, ignoring a catcall from a passing cowboy as she kissed him deeply right there on the boardwalk.
Pulling back, she smiled as brightly as she could, “Thank you, Kid.”
Sneaking a glance at the man riding by her side, Lou smothered the sigh that tried to escape.  She still felt bad about hurting him like that, but she just wasn’t ready to have her life change that much.  She’d finally settled into the way things were and she liked them that way.  For now.
She turned her head fully to meet Kid’s blue-eyed, questioning gaze.   “Yes, Kid?”
“Want to stop for a bit?  Give the horses a rest and grab a bite to eat,” he asked, a tad tentatively.
“I’d love to, Kid,” she smiled.  “But we’re already a day late getting back.  Teaspoon’s going to be mad as a wet hen when we get back as it is.”
Kid laughed. 
“Yeah, yer right.”  Lowering his voice and leaning closer, he added, “But I’d still rather stop and take a break with ya.  It’s real purty round here and you make it even purtier.”
Lou blushed and pushed him away smilingly as she urged her horse onward.
“Where in tarnation have you two been?”  The first blustery words out of Teaspoon’s mouth were red hot enough they could have started a prairie fire.  “You two were due back here yesterday mornin’!  Here it is practically dark the next day!”
“Sorry, Teaspoon, we, uh….”
“Lightning threw a shoe and we had to wait until this mornin’ fer the blacksmith ta get back in town from another job,” Lou threw in hurriedly, rescuing Kid from his own innate honesty.  Tossing him a meaningful glance, she added, “Sorry we’re late.”
“Well,” the chastened older man harrumphed.  “I don’t s’pose ya can ride a shoeless horse.  Leastwise not that far nor that hard.  But next time send a message through, ya hear!”
“Yes, sir!” the duo chorused.
“Come on in and get some supper,” Rachel said from where she stood on the porch smiling down at them.  “Buck, why don’t you take care of their horses.”
“Sure thing,” the dark rider flashed a broad white grin as he took the reins from first Kid then Lou.  “Threw a shoe, hunh?  Is that what they’re callin’ it these days?”  He murmured to Lou teasingly.
She could feel the blush trying to climb up to her face and forced it back down again.  She didn’t dare show any response around these boys.  If there was one thing she’d learned about them by now, that was it.
“What would you know ‘bout it?” she taunted back as she turned to head inside.
Buck just shook his head and meandered over to the barn, trailing the two horses.
“That was great, Rachel, as always,” Kid said, smiling as he wiped his mouth and stood from the table.  “Thanks.”
Rachel smiled, pleased, and collected Kid’s plate from the table.
“I’m gonna go check on Katy.” Kid turned his attention to Lou, laying on a hand on her shoulder. 
She nodded, looking up at him quickly, almost shyly.  “I’ll be out in a few minutes,” she said quietly.  “I should check on Lightning, too.”
Rachel hid her smile at their fumbling attempts to hide their attraction and desire to be alone by turning her back on the room and stacking the dishes for washing.
She heard a moment of whispering and then the door opening and closing.  A moment later, Lou came up beside her with the rest of the dirty dishes from the table.
“Well, what?” Lou answered, keeping her eyes studiously on the dishes.
“So… how’d it go?  Did you like my surprise?”
“It was beautiful, Rachel,” Lou said honestly as she thought of the white, lacy nightgown Rachel had pressed on her just before she and Kid had left.  “Thank you.”
“Every woman deserves to feel beautiful on a night like that, Lou,” Rachel said tenderly, reaching up to brush a strand of hair off Lou’s forehead.  “She also deserves a gentleman who treats her right.”
Lou blushed.  This time there was no stopping the rush of blood to her face as she thought of just how tender and considerate Kid had been, even after.  Especially after.
“Uh, I gotta go… check on Lightning,” she muttered, handing the last cleaned dish to Rachel to dry.
“So… what happened while you two were out there, Kid?” Cody asked as he caught up with Kid just outside the barn, Noah and Buck trailing behind him.  “That special run turned inta a three day trip.  And it weren’t even yer turn.  Shoulda been Ike and Jimmy.”
“What’s it matter to you?” Kid asked, trying not to blush in front of the other boys.  “We… got ta… spend some time together.  Somethin’ that don’t happen much around here.”
“Aw, come on, Kid,” Noah grinned.  “You two spend practically all your time together around here.”
“That ain’t what I mean, Noah,” Kid grumped, turning his back on the others as he walked into the barn.
“So what did ya mean, Kid?” Cody persisted, following him.
Kid shrugged.
“Is he blushin’?” Cody suddenly asked, peering more closely at the taller rider.  “Buck, get that lantern over here.  I think the Kid’s blushin’.”
“He sure is,” Buck agreed as he raised the lantern a little higher, revealing the rosy hue of Kid’s normally tanned face.  “Now, I wonder…. just what happened out there that could be makin’ the Kid blush like that?”
“You sure you gotta ask, Cody?” Noah grinned knowingly.  “I think we can all guess.”
“Maybe there’ll be a bit less botheration round the bunkhouse, now that you two got yer…. itches scratched.”
“Don’t talk ‘bout Lou like that!” Kid demanded, rushing toward Cody, hands clenching into fists. 
Noah and Buck grabbed him and held him back.
“Now, Kid, we’re just playin’,” Buck soothed. 
“You know we all love Lou like a sister,” Noah added.  “We just want to make sure you treat her right.”
“That’s right, Kid,” Cody added self-righteously straightening the hem of his jacket.  “So make sure you do that, alright?”
Kid growled.
“I think we’d better leave the little lovebird be,” Noah smiled.  “I think his partner’s headed out here.”  He nodded his head toward the partially open barn door, where he could see Lou jumping down off the bunkhouse porch.  “Don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I’m not sure I could stand sticking around for all that cooing and such.”
Letting go of Kid, Buck and Noah stepped around the still seething rider and wrapped their hands around Cody’s arms to hustle him out of the barn.
But Cody, as always, had to have the last word. “Guess now we know why the Kid never wanted ta spend any time at the saloons or dance halls.  He was savin’ himself for his own entertainment right here at home.”
He laughed at the sound of Kid’s growl erupting from the barn behind him.
“Mmmm,” Kid murmured, pulling back from their most recent kiss.  They stood in the dark shadows of the barn, as far from light and the door as they could get.  Lou had lost track of how long they’d been there, snuggling and kissing like there was no tomorrow.  Kid rested his forehead against hers and added reluctantly, “We’d probably better head back ta the bunkhouse.  Teaspoon’s gonna be out here soon lookin’ fer his bed.”
“And the boys’ll come lookin’ fer us, no doubt,” Lou grumbled in reluctant agreement.  She slowly began to pull back out of Kid’s embrace, only for him to cinch her in tighter.
“One last kiss?” he pleaded.  “It’s the least you can do,” he added mischievously.  “If I can’t hold you in my arms tonight.  I’m gonna miss havin’ ya by my side, wakin’ up ta ya in my arms.”  With exaggerated care he glanced around the barn to assure himself they were alone before leaning closer to whisper the last in her ear, “Lovin’ my… wife.”
Lou shivered at the tenderness he put in that one word.  But even as their mouths came together in one last caress, another part of her shivered at the way Kid had acted before saying it.  It felt…. wrong… somehow.  And she wasn’t sure if it was the word and what it represented or the secrecy around it that bothered her.
Teaspoon watched from Rachel’s porch as his last two riders exited the barn and headed toward the bunkhouse for the night.  His eyes narrowed as he took in the new, unconscious familiarity between the two, the looks, the touches, the air between them.  
He grunted.  A lot more had happened on that last run than just a thrown shoe.  He’d been married six times, he ought to know.
“Hope they know what they’re doin’,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head.  Love was hard enough without complicating things the way those two obviously had.
A week later…..
A week, a whole week.  More actually, Lou mentally grumbled as she bent low over her mount’s neck, urging the gelding on.  She’d been married all of nine days now and hadn’t seen her husband for seven of them.  She could almost think Teaspoon was conspiring to keep them apart.  The morning after their return, he’d sent Kid off on a run that was supposed to be Jimmy’s.  He said it was because Jimmy had had to take Kid’s run the day before ‘cause they hadn’t gotten back in time.  But she wasn’t so sure of that.  It just wasn’t Teaspoon’s normal style.  This run was so long Kid hadn’t made it back before Lou’d had to leave on her regularly scheduled run. 
It had been so long, or felt like it anyway, that their peaceful little wedding in the meadow had started to feel like nothing more than a dream.  She often found herself reaching up to clasp her wedding ring, still hanging on its chain, tucked safely beneath her shirt, as if it were a talisman of some sort.  It was the only thing, these last couple of days, that had kept her centered, let her get her job done, instead of worrying over other things.
But finally, finally, she was headed home.  And when she got there, Kid should be waiting, if Teaspoon hadn’t sent him off on another errand or something.  Lou grumped unhappily to herself, shifting in the saddle a bit at the thought.
The seemingly sudden sight of Emma’s windmill cresting the horizon sped-up her heartbeat.  She was almost home.  Dropping the wedding band she held in one hand, she urged Lightning to faster speeds.  Realizing why, he eagerly complied.
“Yah!” she shouted as she reached down to grab hold of the mochila with one hand.  Rounding the corner of Emma’s house she saw Jimmy come running out of the bunkhouse and leaping onto Sundancer’s back. 
Without a word she tossed the mail pouch to him and slowed her horse as his sped off.  A quick glance showed no one else in the yard and her shoulders slumped with disappointment.  Evidently Teaspoon had all the boys off on chores somewhere.
Lifting one leg over the saddlehorn, she agilely slid off the side of the saddle to the ground and gathered the reins in one hand to begin cooling Lightning off herself. 
A short time later she walked to the barn doors leading her horse, who was beyond ready for some food and rest in his stall.  Heaving a sigh, she pushed the barn doors open and tugged on the reins, directing Lightning into the cool, dark interior.
As she turned from closing the barn doors behind her, she yelped in surprise.   A strong pair of familiar arms wrapped themselves around her waist as Kid reeled her in for a long welcome home kiss.
“Where were you?” she asked when he finally let her up for air.  “I was lookin’ fer ya outside.”
“I knew I couldn’t do nothin’ but kiss ya the minute I saw ya, so I figured it’d be better ta wait where no one could see me,” he whispered, dipping his head for another taste.  “I missed ya, Lou.  This has been the longest week of my life.”
“Mine, too,” she murmured against his mouth.
The clanging of the dinner bell finally broke their embrace and they rushed to bed down a restless Lightning and make it to the table before Cody and Teaspoon ate all the food.
As they exited the barn and latched the doors, Kid wrapped his arm around Lou’s waist to escort her to the bunkhouse.  She stiffened and shot him a surprised look, which he missed as he watched Teaspoon walking from the house to the bunkhouse perusing something in his hand.  Then she relaxed.  There was only family around tonight.  They all knew her secret. Well, one of them anyway, she smiled to herself as one hand brushed the ring tucked inside her shirt.  Leaning her head into Kid’s shoulder she let him lead her to the dinner table and let herself enjoy the experience of being escorted.
“I don’t think I oughta be part of the welcomin’ party,” Lou said as she sat on the fence rail outside the bunkhouse that night.
*Why not?* Ike questioned.
“She don’t want him catchin’ on ta the fact she’s a she,” Cody answered for her.  “That’s alright, I’ll go.”
“Well, yer not goin’ alone,” Teaspoon said.  “Kid, you and Ike go with him.  Last thing we need’s for that reporter ta think Cody’s the best we got ta offer.”
Kid laughed.  “Aw, it’ll be some stuffy ol’ man from back East.  He won’t know the difference.”
“Still, we need ta put our best feet forward,” Teaspoon said.  “The Express needs this.  So you all treat that reporter right. With respect.”
Buck grunted.  “Hopefully he’ll be gone ‘fore I get back, then.  Can’t say as I can respect a newspaperman much.  I’ve seen too much of how they can twist the truth ta say what they want.  Publicity or not.”
“I’m with you,” Noah smiled.  “Something about all this just seems to stick in my craw wrong.”
“Someone oughta warn Jimmy,” Lou spoke up thoughtfully.
Kid, who was leaning casually against the post next to her, looked down with a question in his face.
“He ain’t gonna like some reporter tryin’ ta dig up stories ‘bout him,” she explained.
“You gotta point, there, Lou,” Teaspoon agreed.  “Why don’t you take care of that?  Oughta keep both of ya out of this reporter’s way.”
Lou nodded agreeably.
“Lou, Jimmy ain’t due back for another couple hours,” Rachel said, as she came out of the house wiping her hands on her apron.  “Could you and Kid head into town and pick up the week’s supplies for me.”
“Rachel,” Kid groaned.  “I just got back from town.”
“And now I need ya to go again,” Rachel smiled with a hint of steel behind the friendly expression.  “If you two leave now ya should be back before Jimmy gets in.”
“I’ll go hitch up the buckboard,” Lou said, pushing her glasses further up on her nose and crossing her arms across her chest as she tried to use a manly swagger to cross the yard to the barn.
“I’m tryin’ ta keep her out of the way of that reporter,” Rachel hissed to Kid.  “Why’d she have ta be a woman?  She’s much more likely ta notice.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna tell her.”
“Not with words, maybe.  But ya keep lookin’ at Lou like that and ye’ll give the whole thing away in no time.  Put yer eyes back in yer head fer a few days, would ya?”
“Who woulda guessed J.R. Walker, New York Dispatch, woulda been a woman?” Lou marveled in a combination of disgust and envy as they began loading the boxes and bags of supplies onto the buckboard.
“Well, I sure never guessed Lou was...” Kid lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper, “Louise.”
Lou pushed him away and laughed.  “Well, no one ever accused you of bein’ overly observant.  But it makes one think, don’t it?”
“Whatcha mean?”
Taking another crate of bottles and tins, Lou settled it carefully on the bed of the buckboard.  “Well, if she can be a reporter, what else are women doin’ now they didn’t used to?  And she even uses her own name, well, sorta, and dresses in skirts and such.  What I’m sayin’ is she don’t have ta pretend ta be a man ta do it.”
Kid smiled at her as he picked up a barrel of molasses and hefted it to his shoulder to deposit in the buckboard.  “Guess not.”
Lou grabbed another crate and followed.  The sound of pounding hooves caught her attention as a horse galloped into town.  Looking up, she recognized the horse and rider.
“Jimmy!” she called out wondering what he was doing here so early and why he was in town, instead of back at the station.  He didn’t appear to have a mochila with him, so maybe he’d just gotten back early.  But he must’ve ridden like the hounds of hell were after him to do that.  
When he didn’t respond to her call, she slashed a worried glance Kid’s way.  Kid nodded and she took off to catch up with Jimmy.  By the time she did, he was hitching his horse up out front of the saloon. 
“You alright?” she asked, concerned.
“Why?” he grunted, not meeting her eyes.
“Uh, saw ya ridin’ in here like a bat outta hell.”
“Somethin’ ya wanted, Lou?” he asked brusquely.  Without waiting for an answer, he turned away and walked toward the boardwalk and the entrance of the saloon.
She followed, thinking fast.  This wasn’t really the right time to warn him about the reporter lady. 
“Yeah!” she said in sudden inspiration. “Yeah.  Um, I just, uh, I… wanted ta thank ya.”  Her hand unconsciously moved to the ring underneath her shirt, fingering it as she spoke. “About.. what ya told the Kid about….” Her voice lowered even more. “You know… about… well, dancin’.”
Jimmy’s mouth moved in a parody of a smile.  “So, you two finally did some dancin’?”
Lou nodded, forcing herself not to blush, although she couldn’t stop the foolish grin that spread across her face.  She avoided meeting his eyes and shrugged her yes.
“Glad ta hear it,” Jimmy said, patting her on the shoulder.   His voice said something completely different.  It said he could care less about what was going on in her life.  He started to push past her, then stopped and reached out grab at her hand.  “Whatcha got there, Lou?”
She jerked away, turning her body protectively away from him.  “Nothin’ of consequence.”
“Did Kid give ya a momento fer the big night?”  Jimmy practically leered at her.  “Lemme see?  Make sure he did right by ya and all.”  His voice practically dripped with sarcasm. 
“What’s wrong with ya, Jimmy?” she asked, backing away from him, tears in her voice.  “This ain’t… ain’t like ya at all.”
“Hey, yer the one brought it up,” Jimmy shrugged.  He turned without another word and walked, stalked really, up the stairs and toward the saloon.
She watched him for a moment, worry clouding her features.  Why was he acting this way?  Had the reporter already gotten to him?
“Jimmy?” she called after him.  He reluctantly turned to find out what she wanted.  “You talk to that reporter?”
“What reporter?” he asked in confusion.
“The reporter Russell, Majors and Waddell sent out ta do a story on the Express?  Teaspoon thought it might be best if you and I stayed out of her way while she’s here.”
“Fine by me,” Jimmy muttered.  “Let me know when she’s gone.  Better yet, just let me alone.”  Without another word, he flung himself through the doors into the saloon.
“Jimmy?” Lou whispered, pain and worry fighting each other for dominance.
“Lou, what’s wrong?” Kid asked, stopping what he was doing when he saw her slowly walking back toward the buckboard as if in a daze.
Lou looked up at him.  “Somethin’s wrong with Jimmy, Kid.  He was…. he was just an… an… ass about….” she paused and looked around before finishing.  “Well.. about… us.”
“That ain’t like him,” Kid muttered as worry and anger began to clash on his face.  “Let me go talk ta him.”
“Kid,” Lou said, grabbing his arm as he started to walk after Jimmy.
“Be…. gentle,” she pleaded.  “I… I think he’s really hurtin’ this time.”
Kid nodded slowly, then continued after Jimmy, still unsure if he was going to find out what was wrong with him, or just knock him into next week for putting that look on Lou’s face.
Stepping cautiously into the saloon, he peered around the corner in time to hear Jimmy tell the bartender, “Leave the bottle.”
“I better get my eyes checked,” he muttered.  Lou was right, something was desperately wrong with Jimmy.  He plastered a friendly smile, completely unfelt at the moment, onto his face and sidled up to Jimmy to cheerfully say, “I must be seein’ things.”
“Whadda ya want, Kid?” Jimmy asked, knocking back a shot of whiskey like it was water.
Forcing himself to keep smiling, Kid asked, “You forgettin’ the company rules about drinkin’?”
“Nope.”  Still Jimmy wouldn’t look at him.
“I’m sorry if that reporter’s bein’ here is stirrin’ up old demons,” Kid tried again.  “But… this ain’t the way ta handle it.”
“We don’t want ta disappoint Russell, Majors and Waddell, now do we?”
“That ain’t what I’m talkin’ about,” Kid shot back, starting to lose his barely held temper.
“Coulda fooled me.”
Kid straightened.  “Come on,” he said, reaching out to grab Jimmy’s shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”
Jimmy jerked away.  “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready,” he ground out.  “Now Kid, why don’t ya go outside. Yer sweetheart’s waitin’ fer ya.  Go outside and play, maybe do a little dancin’. Seems my advice done ya good, Kid.”
“Back off, Jimmy!” That was more than Kid could take. “I made the worst mistake of my life followin’ yer advice ‘bout ‘dancin’,” he hissed.  He reached out and grabbed the front of Jimmy’s shirt, pulling him in close, and ground out between gritted teeth.  “Thanks to ya, I pushed too far, too fast.  And that ain’t somethin’ I kin ever fix!”
Jimmy shrugged, a half smile forming on his mobile mouth as he turned back toward the bar, leaning on his elbows.  “Sorry.”
Kid reached out and put his hand over Jimmy’s as he grabbed the whiskey bottle again.
“That reporter will be gone in a couple days,” Kid growled.  “You don’t wanta talk to her, don’t talk to her.  Just stay away from her.  That’s all Lou was tryin’ ta warn ya ‘bout ta begin with.  But ya ain’t gonna find any answers in here,” Kid added.  “And ya ain’t gonna find ‘em by hurtin’ yer friends, either.
Jimmy jerked free of Kid’s grasp, leaving Kid’s hand alone on the neck of the whiskey bottle.
“Have one on me, Kid.”  Glaring, he dropped a coin on the bar and stalked out of the saloon.  Kid’s shoulders drooped in defeat.
Lou heard the footsteps coming toward the saloon door and hurried away, wiping at the tears gathering in her eyes.  She plopped down on a nearby rain barrel that had been capped, one hand keeping a white knuckled grip on the ring hanging beneath her shirt.  Kid’s words kept rolling through her mind, again and again.
I made the worst mistake of my life followin’ yer advice ‘bout ‘dancin’.
She’d heard those words loud and clear, though the ones that had followed had been too quiet for her to pick up.  What had he said next? Did he regret marrying her already?  Or was it more than that?  Had he had her and realized that’s all he really wanted?  All he needed?
…the worst mistake of my life…
She was so caught up in her self-doubt she didn’t hear or see Jimmy mount up and ride off, or Kid walk up next to her. 
“I don’t know what’s with Jimmy,” he said.
“Hunh?”  Lou looked up at Kid, confused.  What was he talking about Jimmy for?
“He ain’t actin’ like himself,” Kid continued as he walked past her toward the buckboard they’d been loading.  “He just got back from Benton, didn’t he?”
Lou reluctantly slid off the barrel and followed him.
“Hm hm,” she answered non-committally. 
“Somethin’ musta happened,” Kid said as he held up the clothesline for her to duck under.  The worried tone in his voice finally got her complete attention and she looked up to see him staring off down the street.
He was thinking about Jimmy right now, not about them, Lou realized in wonder.  And he was worried.  She looked down the street, too, catching the last plumes of dust kicked up by Jimmy’s horse as he disappeared over the horizon.
“I…” she paused to clear her throat then continued.  “I don’t have a run scheduled for a couple days… I could, ah, go find out.”
Getting out of town, and away from Kid for a couple days, would give her time to sort through some things, she thought to herself.  And, given how little time they’d been able to spend together since the wedding, his reaction to the offer would tell her a lot about what he was feeling and thinking.
He slowed, turning to look down at her searchingly as they stopped.  His eyes searched hers for a moment, then arrived at a decision.
“Take Katy,” he said, glancing over Lou’s shoulder at his horse tethered to a hitching post.  “She’s rested.”
Lou looked away.  Not the response she’d expected.  He wanted her to go.  Either that meant he didn’t really care, or it meant he was more worried about Jimmy than he was letting on.  But then he was offering her his horse.  His horse!  He never, ever, let anyone else ride Katy.  Not once in the time she’d known him had he let anyone else do anything with or for Katy.  Still in shock, she looked back up to catch his next few words.
“If you leave now you can make it before dark.”
“You’re… you’re gonna let me ride yer horse?” she asked, still stuck on that one shocking fact.
He nodded, a glint in his blue eyes warming her from the inside out.  A slight grin broke out on her face.  Maybe she hadn’t heard what she’d thought she’d heard, Lou mused as she turned to mount up.  She must have misunderstood.  That had to be it.
Kid smiled easily up at her as he handed her the reins and her heart lifted.  Turning Katy around, she pushed the big paint into a gallop, Kid’s goodbye ringing in her ears this time.

“Be careful, Lou!”


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, Epilogue


Julia smiled as she leaned against her father’s side, Buck’s arm around her shoulders.  She looked down and admiringly caressed the silky soft white buckskin of her wedding dress that Dawn Star had lovingly sewn for her, complete with traditional dyed porcupine quills etching out colorful patterns.

Julia had been deadset on a traditional church wedding.  Jamie had given it to her, but had insisted they honor her parents’ heritage as well with this ceremony.  In a few short hours, she’d be walking down the aisle of the Rock Creek church wearing an incredible white lace gown who’s design came straight out of the most recent issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Her bridegroom would be waiting for her, fighting to look as solemn as the occasion called for, but his crystal blue eyes smiling grandly only for her.  They would make their vows before the white man’s God and all their friends and neighbors, then have a wonderful wedding supper and escape on their honeymoon.

But first, she was waiting here, in this pretty meadow near their favorite place at the swimming hole, with just their close family, waiting for him.  He’d insisted on holding this ceremony, just for their families, first.  He’d even promised not to talk to Dawn Star ever again after the wedding, following the Cheyenne tradition.  It just made her love him all the more.

Julia looked around, counting all the beloved faces that surrounded her.  Her parents, standing at her sides, her numerous brothers and sisters scattered about behind her.  Well, most of them anyway.  Harry had gone off with Willie and Jed to get Jamie ready for the big day.  They and Jamie’s parents would be escorting him here.

In fact, Julia tilted her head as she strained her ears. Yes.   That was Harry’s flute she could hear, sending it’s dancing tune into the air, preceding the procession.

Soon, they broke through the treeline and entered the meadow.  Aunt Lou and Uncle Kid were leading a beautiful, shining black stallion upon which Jamie sat, tall and proud, grinning for all he was worth.  His brothers followed behind, leading four other horses.  Harry came last, providing the triumphant fanfare on his flute.

Several feet away from where Julia stood, surrounded by her family, Lou and Kid came to a stop and stepped aside.  Jamie dismounted and took the reins of the other horses from his brothers, limping slightly as he led them toward Julia.

The last few months hadn’t been easy, she mused.  As Buck had feared, Jamie had never quite healed completely.  He’d always walk with a limp and his thigh pained him anytime the weather changed.  But he was whole and he was hers.  She wanted to leap and skip in celebration and hug herself with the joy of that knowledge.  But contented herself with moving in place to the music.

Jamie stopped in front of her, his beautiful eyes boring into hers as he tried to contain his smile long enough to talk.  Holding the reins of the four horses out to her, he said, “I bring this gift as a sign of my ability to care for and protect you in our life ahead, you and our children to come.  Do you accept them?  Be careful, for they carry my heart to yours.”

Julia swallowed a giggle.  That last bit wasn’t what they’d planned, but his own sweet whispered addition just for her.

“I take these animals as a promise of the future,” she said smilingly as she reached out and practically snatched the reins out of his hand.  Passing them to her father she added, “In exchange, I promise to care for you and our children for all the days we shall travel this path together.”

“Come,” Jamie said huskily, holding out his hand.  “See the home I have made for us.”

Julia put her hand in his and followed his lead back to the stallion he’d been riding. He leaped aboard the unsaddled animal, then pulled her up in front of him, to wrap his arms around her and hold her tight to his chest.

Using only his knees, he wheeled the horse around and they sprinted away from their families, toward the house he’d spent the last two months building for her, in total secrecy, toward the future.

Continuing to ride without his hands, Jamie framed her face with his palms instead and leaned forward to kiss her deeply as they rode, together.

The End... or maybe just The Beginning.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, chapter 13

Chapter 13
Julia looked back at the palefaced man lying on the travois dragging behind her horse.  They’d tied her Aunt Lou’s bedroll to two young saplings in a triangle formation, with two ends of the saplings tied together over the haunches of Julia’s horse.  The wide end of the triangle dragged on the ground behind the horse.  Jamie had lost consciousness when they’d moved him into the makeshift bed.  That had been a godsend, given how much the travois bumped and jolted with every step the horse took.
They’d had to go slow because of the extra weight the travois put on the horse.  And every second felt like a millennium to Julia, each clop of the horses hooves like a spike being pounded into her heart.  Lou seemed certain Jamie would be alright.  But he appeared half dead already. Julia didn’t know how much more he could take.  Thus the frequent, frantic glances back to assure herself he was still breathing.
“We’re almost there,” Lou said, her breath puffing white into the early dawn air.  “I’m goin’ ta ride ahead and let ‘em know we’re comin’ in.”
Julia perked up as she realized they had just one more hillock to top and a short jog across the plains to the ranch.
“You keep my boy safe,” Lou said as she spurred her horse into action.
Julia nodded as she watched Lou’s horse leap into a full out gallop and wished she could hurry her mount along the same way, get Jamie in out of the cold faster.
“I will,” she half whispered, looking back at him again.  “He’s not just your boy anymore, after all.”
“You grab his legs,” Uncle Kid ordered Jed and Willie.  “I’ve got his head.  Let’s get him into the infirmary.”
It might have been funny watching six grown men scramble to grab any part of Jamie’s body they could reach to cradle a single man like a baby as they transferred him into the Big House and Buck’s medical treatment room.
Julia ran ahead and laid a folded up blanket down at one end of the raised pallet her dad used for an examining table.
“Here,” she said.  “Careful with his head.  He’s got an awful big goose egg on it.”
“I’m much more worried about that leg of his,” Buck said.  “At least the cold helped keep his body temperature down.  That will have slowed any swelling.  There’s still a chance I can straighten the leg and set it proper.”  He looked deeply into Julia’s eyes as he added, “But there’s a good chance it won’t heal perfect.  He may have a serious limp the rest of his life.  If he doesn’t catch an infection from the treatment.”
Julia looked away even as she nodded.  She knew how bad his injuries were and just what his chances of full recovery would be.
“He’ll…. he’ll be alive,” she mustered.  “That’s all that matters.”
Lou put a comforting hand on her shoulder as Kid gave her the hug Buck couldn’t at the moment.  The three of them watched, Jed and Willie standing right behind them, as Buck moved over to Jamie’s side and began checking him over.
“Julia grab the shears and cut the rest of this pant leg off,” Buck ordered brusquely.  “We’ll deal with the leg first, then his other injuries.  We can worry about the rest of his clothing later.”
Julia rushed to do as bid and soon Jamie’s injured leg lay, the thigh slightly twisted at an odd angle, ready to be set.
Buck shook his head as he completed his examination.  “There’s a good chance settin’ that leg’ll rouse him.  Normally I’d give him some chloroform ta prevent it, but I don’t want ta risk that with his head injury.  Head injuries can be strange things.  Never good ta add anythin’ to ‘em that might muddle the mind.  That means y’all are goin’ ta have ta hold him down while I set his leg.  If ya can’t stay strong durin’ this, then leave now.”
He looked around at the concerned family members gathered around the examining table and near the door to the room.  His eyes met Dawn Star’s and she nodded and began gathering the younger children up, chivvying them toward the kitchen.
“I’ll have a hot meal on when you’re ready,” she said softly as she followed them youngsters out of the room.
Buck nodded, his face softening with love and appreciation.  He took a deep breath and looked around those still in the room.  Harry, Jed and Willie stood uncertainly at the foot of the examining table.  Julia stood at her father’s side and Kid and Lou were on the other side of the table.
He moved to the end of the table and picked up Jamie’s foot.  Looking at the three boys he said, “One of you will have to pull hard on his foot.  You can’t waiver for even a second until I tell you I’m done.  The other two will have to hold down his other leg, keep him from moving.  It’s vital he be kept still while I piece his leg back together.”
The three boys nodded and Jed stepped up to take hold of his brother’s foot while the other two moved over to his other leg.
Buck moved back toward Jamie’s thigh while looking at his other three helpers.
“Kid,” he said, “you’re gonna have ta hold down his head and shoulders.  Lou, you and Julia will each take an arm.  Be ready.  At first there’ll be no resistance, but once he wakes up, he’ll fight hard.  This is gonna hurt like hell.”
Looking around to make sure everyone was in position and ready, Buck nodded.  “Alright then,” he muttered.  “Here we go.”
With deft, sure hands on Jamie’s thigh he ordered, “Jed, pull.”
Julia put all her weight into pressing down on Jamie’s arm at the command, flinching only slightly at the chest deep groan that escaped her childhood love as Buck began maneuvering the two ends of the broken thigh bone back into position.
She looked away after a moment, no longer able to watch the disturbingly gruesome picture of the pieces of Jamie’s leg poking out at skin again and again, in a way never intended by nature, as Buck pushed and prodded them into place.
“Gaaaaah!” Jamie suddenly screamed in her ear, struggling to sit up.
“NO!” she yelled at him.  “You’ve gotta stay still, Jamie.”  Tears rolled down her eyes at the pain he was going through.  But she gritted her teeth and stayed the course.  “I know it hurts,” she said hoarsely.  “But we’ve gotta do it.  Just hang in there, Jamie.  Hang in there.”
“Hold him still, damnit,” Buck grunted.  “Jed, pull harder, I need more room ta work.”
The fight to hold Jamie still seemed to take forever as he shouted, groaned and squealed in pain, right in Julia’s ear.
Finally, Buck stepped back, “Done.  You can let him go now.”
The others released their hold on Jamie, who, beyond knowing what was going on, continued to struggle.  As Julia released his arm it went flying.  The knuckles of his hand landed right in her face, knocking her over.
Julia sat in a corner of the infirmary, a hand-sized slab of fresh meat plastered to her face over the growing bruise that was once her eye.  Her gaze had remained tight on Jamie for hours as she waited for him to awake.  Shortly after hitting her, he’d lost consciousness again.  But this time it was a peaceful, healing rest.  Eventually exhaustion had claimed her, too.  Now she slept where she sat, snoring lightly, her head resting against the wall behind her.
Jamie felt the warmth of the room first, then heard the rumbling sounds of someone snoring.  Hmmm, things were heating up in hell, he thought idly to himself.  His Ma had always told him sleeping in a room with a snorer was pure hell, but this sound was almost… soothing.  The Devil was off his game today.  Even the warmth was comforting, not scorching as he’d always imagined Hell to be.
Eventually he got tired of looking at the red-gold insides of his eyelids and slowly flickered his eyes open.  The pattern of the wood above his head looked oddly familiar.  He frowned.  A snort off to the side had him turning his head.
“Julia?” he whispered.  What was she doing in Hell?  Frowning slightly at the thought, he turned his head to look around the room some more, wincing as the movement and light sent shards of pain lancing through his brain.  He was in the… infirmary?  “I’m not dead?”
“No, you most certainly are not.  Although not for lack of trying, both on your part and with the help of others.”
“Ma?”  He turned his head quickly toward the sound of his mother’s soft voice, then groaned at the pain that attacked him in retaliation.  Closing his eyes against it, he said, “What’s goin’ on?”
“Bet that head of yours is hurtin’ ta fit the dickens,” Lou muttered, half-smiling as she moved toward him with a cold cloth.  “Forget geese.  What you’ve got is more the size of an ostrich egg.”
“Ostrich?” Jamie latched onto the unfamiliar word in his confusion.
“A big bird, taller than a yer Pa.  Read about it once in a book about strange, monstrous looking animals,” Lou chattered on as she checked her son over to be sure he really was going to be alright.  Buck had said so, but….. “They’re from Africa, though by the look of the animals in that book I swear half of them are made up.  Maybe more.  Then again, I’d a never believed there existed a horse-like creature with a giant hump in its back if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes.  And it spits.”  She chuckled.  “How’s the leg feeling?”
At the mention, Jamie remembered his leg hurting horribly.  But now?  Not so much.  Suddenly concerned, he struggled to push himself up on his elbows and look down at the leg.  Lou jumped in to support his shoulders while he completed his inspection.
“It… aches.”
“That’s good.  You let us know if that changes.  Achin’ means it’s healin’ good.  Anythin’ else, or the least sign of a fever, could mean ya got an infection after all.”
Jamie nodded distractedly as she helped him lay back down.  His head turned back to where he’d seen Julia, curled up asleep in the chair.  She was no longer snoring.  Instead, her eyes were open and staring at him.  Well, at least one eye was open.  The other remained hidden beneath that slab of steak.
Lou looked back and forth between the two of them and hid a smile behind her hand.  “Um, I think I better go check on our prisoner.  Now that yer awake, I’ll need ta get him ready ta take ta town and put in a proper cell.  Tyin’ him up like a hog fer butcherin’ may be personally satisfyin’, it just ain’t…. proper.”
She set aside the cloth she’d been wiping Jamie’s forehead with and stood up to leave.
“I still think we should let him go,” Julia said quietly, looking down at her hands in her lap.  “This isn’t his fault.”
“Like hell it ain’t!” Lou ground out through gritted teeth.  “And I’ve about had enough of yer standin’ up fer the man what was gonna rape ya and kill my son.”
“But, I… I led him on.  He thought I loved him.  I… I just wanted to help.  His Pa is such a mean ol’ drunk.  How was I to know he’d take it otherwise?  I just don’t think he should be jailed for misunderstanding.”
“Oh, Julia, stop it!” Jamie grunted.  “Yer always willin’ ta forgive everyone.  Everyone but yerself.  Other men misunderstand what a woman wants.  Hell, I’ve done it myself with you a hundred times.  But they don’t go tryin’ ta kidnap and violate her.  Which was exactly what he was gonna do.  He shot me in the back, Julia.  That’s more than a misunderstandin’.”
Exhausted by his outburst, he leaned his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes with a strained sigh.  Julia immediately jumped to her feet and rushed to his side.
“You need to take it easy, Jamie,” she chided him, pulling the blanket up to his shoulders and straightening it.  “I’ll…. I’ll let you get some sleep.”
Jamie’s eyes snapped open again at the way she said the last and he looked into her eyes and knew, knew to his bones that she was running away again.  He reached out and snatched one of her hands with his.
“What the hell are ya plannin’ this time, darlin’?”
“I… I….”
“Don’t lie ta me, Julia,” he warned grimly, then softened his look with a lopsided smile up into her face.  “Ya were never any good at it, anyway.”
She pulled free of his grasp and walked over to the window by the door, staring out into the swirling morning snow.  She couldn’t look at him when she told him.  “I… I’m leaving in the spring.”
“Iowa State College offered me a teaching position before I left.  I’ve decided I’m going to take it.”  She managed to get the words out without breaking into the tears she could feel battering at her from the inside out.
“But… why?” Jamie said so softly she could barely hear him, sounding almost like a wounded little boy.
“Look at yourself, Jamie.  That’s what I do to people,” she huffed, using anger to control her emotions as she turned to face him.  “Look at Carl, headed for prison.  Because of me.”  She kept rolling in her tirade, right over Jamie’s partially voiced objection.  “Because I’m Indian.  Well, that’s something that’ll never change.  It doesn’t matter how smart I am, how educated I am.  It doesn’t matter what I wear or how I talk or if I know which fork to use at the dinner table.  I am, always have been and always will be, nothing but a Red Savage in the world’s eyes.  My presence just paints a bright red target on you and everyone else in this family.  And I won’t be responsible for that! ….. I… can’t.”
“Julia Wiggle Girl Cross, you get over here right now or I’m getting’ up off this bed and comin’ after ya,” Jamie grunted, feeling his own ire rise to match hers.  Struggling he began trying to push himself up to do just as he’d threatened and Julia rushed to his side
“Don’t!  You can’t put weight on that leg yet!  Pa hasn’t finished splinting it!” she scolded him.  “That’s just a green splint for now.  You can’t get up until he comes back and fixes it proper so you can walk on crutches in a few days.”
“Well?” Lou whispered.  “What are they sayin’?”  She stood with the rest of the family just outside the door.  The two in the infirmary had never even noticed her departure.
“They’re still arguin’ over whether she should go teach at Iowa State,” Kid answered, his ear pressed to the door.
“Teach?  At Iowa State?” Buck asked, his brow wrinkled in confusion.  “Did she say anythin’ ‘bout that to you?” he asked Dawn Star.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.  “Not a word.”
“Hush!  I can’t hear what they’re sayin’ with y’all natterin’ on,” Kid hissed, waving a shushing hand at the rest of their combined families crowded behind him.
“Then don’t leave,” Jamie smiled triumphantly as he grabbed both her hands and pulled her up against him.  “Cause every time ya do, I’m just goin’ ta get up and follow.  No matter how far, no matter how often.  Bum leg bedamned.”
Julia stared at him, her eyes filling with tears.
“What…. what are you saying, Jamie,” she whispered hoarsely.
“I’m sayin’ that I love ya, you fool woman,” he answered, pulling her even closer and smashing his mouth against hers, letting go of one of her hands so he could reach up and press her head closer to his.
Julia lost herself in the power of his ardor.  The feel of his lips hungrily searching hers, the pounding of his heart pressed so tightly to hers, the strength of his hands as he held her to him, as if afraid she’d leave, all sent her pulse skittering sideways and froze her lungs in mid-breath.
It was passion with an edge and it could only last for so long.  Eventually he pulled back and collapsed on the pillow behind him, as if he’d used up all his strength.
“Do ya understand now?  If ya gotta go back ta Iowa State ta teach, I’m comin’ with ya.  If ya try runnin’ back ta live with yer Ma’s folks, I’ll follow ya.  I let my own stubborn pride come between us enough.  No more.”  Smiling, he reached up and gently cupped her cheek in one hand.  “You’re mine.”
Tears of relief and love started escaping from the corners of her eyes.
“Alright,” she hiccuped, smiling mischievously at him.  “But only if you marry me first.”
His eyes widened at her unexpected words.  He opened his mouth to respond, but she pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him before he said a word.
“You don’t really think, after a kiss like that, things would stay platonic between us, do you?”
“Lord, I hope not,” he breathed, pulling her down on top of him as he pressed his lips to hers once again.
The duo was so caught up in each other they didn’t hear the cheers and whistles from the crowd gathered outside the infirmary door.